Boosting Diversity in Biomedical Research

Originally published in UTEP Magazine, Winter 2015

$22.6 Million Grant Will Help UTEP Diversify Nation’s Workforce

Members of the UTEP BUILD team include, from left, Stephen Aley, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences; Osvaldo Morera, Ph.D., professor of psychology; Renato Aguilera, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences; Thomas Boland, Ph.D., director of biomedical engineering; Sara Grineski, Ph.D., and Tim Collins, Ph.D., associate professors of sociology and anthropology; Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D., director of the Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives; Homer Nazeran, Ph.D., professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Guadalupe Corral, Ph.D., of UTEP’s Office of Research and Sponsored Projects.

By Nadia M. Whitehead •  Photo by J.R. Hernandez

Today, it is much harder to have a successful grant application than it was 10 years ago. But while federal funding across the board continues to be scaled back, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) invested a hefty $22.6 million in The University of Texas at El Paso in October 2014.

The massive grant is part of the NIH’s plan to diversify the nation’s biomedical research workforce – a goal in which UTEP can play a role.

“This major investment by the NIH reflects its confidence in The University of Texas at El Paso to inspire, train and support underserved and underrepresented scientists and engineers,” UTEP President Diana Natalicio said.

With the funds, the University will create Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity: Southwest Consortium of Health-Oriented Education Leaders and Research Scholars (BUILDing SCHOLARS), a consortium made up of 19 institutions with UTEP at the helm.

BUILDing SCHOLARS will transform the workforce from the ground up by generating interest in biomedical research from a young age, said Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D., one of eight principal investigators at UTEP who helped develop the center’s concept.

“There is a critical need to maintain U.S. competitiveness in science, technology, medicine and of course, the economy at a global scale,” explained Echegoyen, director of UTEP’s Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives. “Undergraduate research has been demonstrated to be the educational practice with the highest impact on student success and UTEP has taken a leadership role in that regard. NIH has recognized this with this award to our team and we are all very excited to get this project off the ground.”

Qualifying high school seniors in the El Paso region who demonstrate enthusiasm for the biomedical engineering, biomedical or socio-behavioral sciences will be encouraged to apply for the competitive program. If accepted, students will receive BUILD scholarships to cover all four years of tuition at UTEP, plus a stipend. Immediately after graduating from high school, students will begin their involvement in BUILDing SCHOLARS by participating in an intensive, pre-college boot camp to hone fundamental academic skills.

“Our program will train students who will eventually become research scholars,” Echegoyen said. “Beginning the summer before their freshman year, students will start developing a professional identity and begin to think of themselves as research scientists and engineers.”

During their four years at UTEP, BUILD scholars will take special, research-intensive courses and also participate in mentored research projects. They will be required to conduct summer research at a partner institution with opportunities available at multiple locations: The University of Texas at Austin, Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University, The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, the University of New Mexico, the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, the University of Connecticut, Clemson University and the pharmaceutical company Novartis.

The 18 other partner institutions making up BUILDing SCHOLARS are designated as either research or pipeline partners. Research partners will provide research opportunities for BUILD scholars; faculty at UTEP and pipeline institutions also will be able to collaborate with these research partners. Pipeline partners will feed students to UTEP. For instance, sophomores and juniors who transfer from El Paso Community College or the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute will have the opportunity to receive BUILD scholarships.

By the time BUILD scholars graduate, they will have developed close-knit relationships with faculty who conduct their own research; these mentors should inspire students to pursue doctoral degrees in the biomedical sciences and engineering.

The center’s emphasis on mentorship is one of the reasons Nancy Street, Ph.D., associate dean of UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, agreed for her school to become a partner in the consortium.

“One of the things I’m most excited about is the plan to build long-term mentoring relationships,” Street said. “To have someone who knows you and is committed to staying in touch can be really impactful; it can make the difference between success and failure.”

More than 300 UT Southwestern Medical Center faculty will be potential mentors for incoming summer research students. BUILD scholars will be paired with faculty with whom they share an interest – be it cancer biology, genetics, or Alzheimer’s – and then go on to conduct independent research for 10 weeks. They’ll learn, be challenged and have an eye-opening summer, Street said.

Faculty development, particularly in research, mentoring and teaching, also is a key aspect of BUILDing SCHOLARS. A new innovation space that is specially designed for a Student Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) will be constructed to establish a highly collaborative, hands-on, technology-rich environment for BUILD-related courses.

UTEP’s well-rounded program will shape successful students who then go on to thrive in the biomedical sciences and diversify the nation’s graduate schools, postdoctoral researchers and faculty. The hope is that the number of biomedical and socio-behavioral scientists and engineers who succeed at securing the flagship NIH grants, known as RO1s, will one day reflect the evolving demographics of the United States.

“The NIH doesn’t just want to have a few token success stories about minorities in the sciences and engineering,” Echegoyen explained. “They want to transform how [education is] being delivered and how we are training the next generation of researchers to achieve a minority representation that is parallel to that of the U.S. population.”

According to the NIH, UTEP was selected based on the strength of its innovative approach to training and mentoring, which reviewers felt had the highest potential to have a substantial impact on enhancing the diversity of the biomedical workforce.

Street is encouraged by the NIH’s investment in diversity, saying that it’s important that everyone has an equal opportunity in the sciences. She is also excited UTEP will play a major role in the mission.

“In the last five or so years, I have seen a renewed commitment at UTEP – from new buildings to new faculty – to build its focus on the sciences,” Street said. “UTEP has been on my radar, so when asked to join BUILD, everything I knew about the University made me extremely excited. They’ve already created high-success programs; this will allow them to take it to the next level.”

BUILDing SCHOLARS began recruiting students in December and will make decisions about the first cohort of BUILD scholars in the spring of 2015.

The UTEP team that developed the award-winning plan consists of seven additional investigators: Renato Aguilera, Ph.D., and Stephen Aley, Ph.D., professors of biological sciences; Thomas Boland, Ph.D., director of biomedical engineering; Tim Collins, Ph.D., and Sara Grineski, Ph.D., associate professors of sociology and anthropology; Osvaldo Morera, Ph.D., professor of psychology; and Homer Nazeran, Ph.D., professor of electrical and computer engineering. Guadalupe Corral, Ph.D., helped with the project by developing an evaluation plan for BUILDing SCHOLARS. Staff from UTEP’s Center for Institutional Evaluation, Research and Planning (CIERP) also assisted.